Monday, February 26, 2007

Telling Women What to Think and Do

I once enjoyed reading the group blog Pandagon, even if it sometimes stepped over the line of good taste or honest practices - but I stopped reading it regularly in January when Amanda Marcotte posted a disrespectful rant comparing PETA to Operation Rescue. One should welcome a straightforward and honest comparison between two groups that are among the most effective in their movements, including criticism of tactics that may render the groups' campaigns less effective, or even criticism of the very goals these groups work towards. Amanda's arguments, however, are crude, dishonest, and hurtful towards actual women who have dedicated their lives to a noble cause.

This all started with PETA's successful State of the Union Undress, wherein a PETA staffer takes off all her clothes while talking about the kinds of animal cruelty that most Americans refuse to face. The video, designed to draw traffic to PETA's web site, was picked up by everyone from Bill O'Reilly to Amanda at Pandagon and Jill at Feministe. The interesting part is, Bill O'Reilly goes comparatively easy on the woman.

The blogs attack PETA and the naked staffer from all sorts of different angles. One blog asks if "this a globally broadcast incident of sexual harassment," alleging that when a woman takes off her clothes for a cause she believes in, we must immediately be suspicious that coercion is involved. Jill at Feministe picks apart the woman and her actions, calls her and other women in PETA campaigns "erotic novelties," and goes as far as criticizing the staffer's choice to trim her pubic hair. And Amanda refers not only to the staffer's subjugation ("They think women are just bodies to be manipulated for their ends"), but diverts the discussion away from feminist issues by stating that PETA is anti-science, and by giving legs to the meme that PETA hypocritically kills animals (which she admits is a concept sponsored by the food industry). Amanda's post is filled with so many low blows that anyone who supports even just a portion of PETA's work would probably be driven away, and those people are the target audience of Amanda's post in the first place.

In perhaps the most offensive of related posts, Ross at The Talent Show starts off by saying "[Fuck] PETA . . . No, seriously, I literally mean that you should go right now and have sexual congress with them. Because that's apparently what they want you to do." To Ross, taking off your clothes (in a completely non-sexual way) means you are just asking for sex. Perhaps this is all said in jest, but this is a dangerous thing to imply.

While Ross gives props to the feminist arguments by Amanda and Jill that inspired his post, he seems to only appeal to feminism to advance his own perspective, and his "she's just begging for it" suggestion shouldn't be construed as a feminist argument. But his post, which focuses heavily on the staffer's trimmed pubic region, isn't far removed from what I understand Amanda and Jill are saying - women must not get naked for a cause they believe in, because they are just being used as a tool by a sexist society/organization, and their own decisions don't count in that context.

The American Women's Rights movement has been working pretty much in full force for over 150 years, and their work is far from over. But we as a society seem to be hitting some speed bumps along the way towards equality. I would argue that Amanda and Jill have become prominent voices in the movement, which is why I find it disheartening to see all the missteps they take, and all the grief they cause women in the name of promoting freedom, justice, and equality. Feminists should be the last people to attack women for using their bodies as they see fit with phrases like "PETA can . . . go fuck themselves."

I do not work for PETA and have never organized a PETA protest, but I personally know many people at PETA, both male and female, who achieve various states of undress for their campaigns. They are all highly dedicated activists, with pretty thick skin - something the women in particular need when taking off their clothes for a public media stunt. It's far more controversial, of course, when a woman takes off her clothes than when a man does, and I think it says something about society when, for example, PETA sponsors a protest with a topless man and woman, and only the presence of the woman gets covered in the media.

Naked or bikini-clad protests are controversial, and do run the risk of alienating Christians, Muslims, some feminists, victims of abuse, etc. But these protests are almost consistently effective at garnering massive media attention, which helps PETA move their message with much less money than the advertising budgets of the companies they oppose. PETA may be able to find other ways to make the national news that run less risk of driving people away. Civil disobedience comes to mind, but I don't imagine PETA wants to endanger their 501(c)(3) status or fight costly court battles associated with peaceful lawbreaking. PETA's other attempts at controversy, such as comparisons between animal exploitation and human slavery or the Holocaust, have been just as successful as "naked demos" but much more divisive.

I don't see why non-sexually-explicit nudity would offend feminists. Women, even in recent years, have campaigned to be allowed to take off their clothes in public. In my own town of Rochester, New York, a group of women successfully convinced the appeals court in 1992 to allow them to bare their breasts as men do in public venues. In a concurrence, Judge Titone states that "the People have offered nothing to justify a law that discriminates against women by prohibiting them from removing their tops and exposing their bare chests in public as men are routinely permitted to do." The ability for women to be topless or wear swimsuits in public, as men can, or to be naked in private among consenting adults, should be seen as a right, and in contexts that do not harm women, should be defended by those concerned about equality.

So why should PETA, which is run by woman and has women in positions throughout its ranks, receive so much criticism for allowing its employees or members to voluntarily hold public demonstrations or produce videos or print ads that feature naked bodies in a sex-free or non-explicit way? The people who model or campaign aren't just showing off their bodies on a whim like one does at the beach - they use that attention to speak their mind through press releases or media appearances. Pamela Anderson, for example, who has appeared naked in many a tasteful PETA advertisement, is quite eloquent in her PETA video.

In which contexts does the modern feminist movement feel comfortable with naked women? I imagine most feminists feel comfortable with woman-positive commercial campaigns, like Dove's Real Beauty campaign, or with art that promotes social justice for people, such as the film Boys Don't Cry. These are commercial endeavors where attractive women get naked - do the rules somehow change when a nonprofit starts advocating for animals?

Does it make sense to chastise attractive women for getting naked to protest, to criticize them only because they are all at once attractive and female and protesting, but not notice the naked PETA campaigns of men like Ron Jeremy and David Cross? Aren't we parsing gender differences and superficial traits more than people dedicated to equality should? In the end, is there any way for PETA to run a naked campaign featuring a woman that would be suitably woman-friendly in the eyes of these feminists?

I should note that PETA's campaigns that feature women in states of undress may be problematic simply because people like Amanda and Jill oppose them. Amanda and Jill represent the thoughts and opinions of many modern feminists, and without the support of these progressive individuals, PETA is only making their job of dramatically changing society's treatment of animals harder. But that shouldn't validate Amanda and Jill's position that it's wrong for a person to take of their clothes for the animals because they're a woman. PETA most likely weighs the amount that each stunt alienates particular segments of society, and adjusts their strategy accordingly. Certainly, if they see enough criticism to the point where they think they're losing steam, female PETA employees and volunteers will try other methods.

I'm not sure Amanda Marcotte would as readily accept a course correction. When popular bloggers who make feminism their main concern have such a problem with women who voice a particular concept in a particular way, it serves to divide people rather than unite them behind a common cause. This post was actually inspired by Amanda and Jill's recent posts about abortion being a "moral good," which includes such gems as:

The “I think abortion should be legal but I would never have one” argument grates on my nerves. . . . Saying that you think the little ladies should have the right but you are morally superior enough to never terminate a pregnancy is condescending and completely unhelpful to the abortion rights movement.

And also:

The “I’m pro-choice but I think abortion is wrong” thing crops up a lot in these discussions . . . I seriously don’t get why people think that it helps anything to hand wring about how terrible abortion is if you’re supporting the right to have one. . . . Having the notion that women are moral midgets and that abortion is an evil, even if you think it’s one that should be tolerated, being reinforced by pro-choicers does the pro-choice argument no good. . . . Also, saying that abortion is morally questionable, even if you’re pro-choice, is a huge insult to the brave men and women who risk life and limb to perform them.

Here we have a slightly different take on why women must do and say what Jill and Amanda believe, this time dismissing a valid opinion because it doesn't play into the pro-choice movement's strategy. But similar to what they would say to female PETA staffers, Jill and Amanda are insulting women (and also, to some degree men) and their beliefs instead of convincing them based on sound arguments. Any movement should be happy to have supporters who don't personally wish to gain from the movement's goals but still support them, and yet here we have rude responses to the opinion of many choice supporters.

Much of what people write is useful, because it draws attention to problems even when it doesn't help solve them, but I think these sorts of attacks are an exception. This sort of dismissive rhetoric is a major stumbling block within many different movements. I hope to some day soon share my thoughts on similar problems within the heart of the animal protection movement.

It is important, when holding public discussion in the hopes of forwarding the ideals of justice and peace, to do so out of love and compassion. One can achieve orders of magnitude more progress by appealing to people's own goodness and desire to do better, than one can through hurtful or negative rhetoric. If one sees another's deeds as truly bad, this doesn't mean they should hesitate to criticize, but they should be the epitome of love and not hate, of understanding and not ignorance.

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